Writer: Ande Parks
Artist: Eduardo Barreto
Publisher: Oni Press
Review by: Bill Jones
It is June 17, 1933. The scene is an Untouchables-esque train station in Kansas City with three-story-high ceilings and marble floors. It is called Union Station. An FBI agent named Reed Vetterli and his cohorts wait outside the station with local authorities to receive a petty criminal with mob connections named Frank Nash, who is being transferred to the feds there. Except one of those mob connections, Vern Miller, owes Nash a favor, and plans to pay it by springing him, an action that turns into a massacre at Union Station with no one sure who pulled the trigger first.
Union Station, a graphic historical-fiction novel written by Ande Parks (Capote in Kansas) and drawn by Eduardo Barreto (The Long Haul), presents the happenings and aftermath of that bloody June morning, and a few of their own theories and literary whims along the way.
The first act introduces the key players, including reporter Charles Thompson, who was on the scene during the Union Station Massacre and plays a key role in trying to uncover the truth of the situation later in the book. Authorities are set to pick up Nash, but there is little cooperation between the federal and local units, and several early inconsistencies may have been more than simple oversights, if conspiracy theories are to be believed.
Either way, many of the characters the reader meets don’t make it through the first act, but we learn a lot about the ones that do in that moment of crisis. They become the key players through the second and third acts as the confusion unfolds. Readers witness the rise of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and the mob influence on the investigation. Parks questions whether Pretty Boy Floyd had any involvement in the massacre and if an innocent man was put in the electric chair for political ends.
The major feat of Union Station is that it truly feels like a 1930s gangster story, in large part to the credit of Barreto’s art. His figures are classic, square-jawed cops and gangsters, whose hats often cast shadows over their eyes. And the gangsters carry big machine guns. In many ways, the style reminds of the old Dick Tracy cartoons, though with much more detail and a black-and-white tone keeping it less over-the-top than the classic strip.
Barreto’s panel construction is usually straightforward, but he does a few interesting things, including the way the shootout unfolds. We first see quick cuts. We get a close-up of the “Track 27″ sign, zooming out as the entourage works its way up a flight of stairs. Four pages later, the panels start to slant in the opening of the gunfight, then the following page sees shattered panels and gunfire working its way across the page, as the events explode into chaotic violence. The opening of Act II, in stark contract, initially calms things down with a bright white dream sequence, only to have the dream go sour and come back to the harsh reality of shadowy tones.
Parks is straightforward in his dialogue, but emphasizes the way certain characters get the point across without saying exactly what they mean. The historical accuracy of Union Station may be questioned, but by no real fault of Parks. The events of that day have been muddied by different accounts and probably cover-ups along the way. Parks spends five (very interesting) pages of text at the end of the book, citing his sources, and outlining his opinions on various theories and where he admittedly took artistic liberties to tell a story.
Union Station can, at times, be slightly confusing. It moves fast with a wealth of characters to keep track of, and it is hard not to wish Parks spent a little more time in the latter half of the book unfolding the theories, as the work comes in at a mere 106 pages. The major action comes in Act I, and before we really know what is going on, but it helps recreate the feeling of that day for those involved, when nobody really knew what was going on.
Ultimately, Union Station is an engaging read that will satisfy fans of films like Road to Perdition, crime-fiction enthusiasts, conspiracy theorists and comic aficionados. It is a quick read – easy to digest in one sitting – which is good, because fans will likely want to pick it right back up to play through and piece together the events of the massacre again and again.
For more info, www.onipress.com
*Note: Oni Press offers a preview of the entire first act, 31 pages, on the website.